Greg Bear,
Darwin's Radio
(Del Rey, 1999)

I have been a fan of Greg Bear's for several years now, and whether he's writing epic, grand-scale science fiction (Foundation & Chaos, Eon, Eternity, Moving Mars), or deep character-drama tinged with hard sf concepts (Slant, Darwin's Radio), I am always entranced by his ideas and enthralled by the way he executes them.

Darwin's Radio is no exception. While it is not as gripping as Slant nor as magnificent in scope as Moving Mars, Darwin's Radio is still prime Bear. His fascinating idea, that viruses exist encoded in human DNA and trigger evolutionary changes, has of course been approached before (notably by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash), but Bear takes an entirely fresh approach, linking his virus to racism, fascism and the horrific examples of ethnic cleansing that keep cropping up in central and eastern Europe. Humanity, the most basic paradigm of what it is to be human, is changing, Bear suggests in this novel -- and as always, the new and different frightens those who don't understand it.

Bear's depiction of the aftermath of a village's massacre early in the text is a sure sign, not only of where he is going, but that he has a sure grasp of what he wants to say and how he is going to say it. He carefully sets up a marvelous set of ambiguities with this scene; we are in immediate sympathy with the victims, as we have been taught to be all our lives. But, as the narrative progresses and we learn why these poor souls were murdered -- and why the emergence of the Sheva virus has thrown the world into fearful chaos -- we grow more and more uncomfortable. What if, we think, this were happening to us, or to someone we know? Would we want to risk our health, and the growing enmity of our friends, neighbors and family, for a Sheva pregnancy? How fearful would we become about the product of such a birth? Would we, in the end, want such births to happen, if it meant the end of what it means to be human right now? How willing are we to look to the future, rather than to think only of the short term?

These are hard questions to ask of oneself, and they become harder to answer as the book goes on -- and therein lies Bear's triumph. For while I sympathized with the protagonists, running from a supposedly benevolent government that, as it reacts in fear instead of acting in hope, becomes more and more of a police state -- nevertheless, I found I was also able to understand the point of view of the hunters as well. Again, ask yourself: What would you do, if faced with the ultimate end of everything you knew and were given what you saw as the slimmest hope possible, that this destruction would lead to a newer, better definition of humanity? Could you make that leap of faith?

I have been trying to answer that question for weeks, and that fact that I'm still thinking about it, while other recently read books have faded from my memory, indicates that Darwin's Radio is going to hold a special place in my collection for a long time to come.

book review by
Jay Whelan

11 September 2010

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